Age Zero and One: Maybe She's Different

chapter one graphic marker
There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come.

— Victor Hugo

Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense.

— Winston Churchill

I remember like it was yesterday. Danielle and my dialogue with Colonel Qaddafi. Her challenge to the Madrassa schools. Her confrontation with the Food and Drug Administration. Her arrest. Her taking on the Red Army. The death of her collaborator and soul mate. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.

Hi, I’m Claire. Let me tell you how Danielle came to be my sister. I was six years old and school had ended at two in the afternoon. I was sitting on the dirt floor in the factory—the only afterschool program I ever knew—next to Mum with her sewing machine, playing with my favorite and pretty much only possessions, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,1 and my guitar. My book was in English, and everyone seemed quite impressed I could read it by myself. My guitar was a small square white box with a round hole. It must have been a wooden crayon box once because it still had the telltale scribblings. Someone had glued on a fingerboard, head, and strings, and it worked surprisingly well. I found it discarded in the factory’s trash, and Mum’s musician friends fixed the dents and polished out the scratches. It was missing a string and I was still hoping to find it.

I often played and sang for the women in the factory as they sewed button-up blouses and long skirts, which I imagined swaying on the hips of their future owners. Most of the women started smiling whenever I sang for them. I like to think it made their work less dull. Some of them hummed along. Others tapped their feet. I would look out over my “audience” and imagine I was singing in a huge concert hall. In front of me, rows of women at sewing machines, dangling electrical wires, and colorful garments of bold red, blue, green, and white hanging from clothes lines, stretched as far as I could see.

How I loved my music, even back then.

I remember Mum sewing a white dress with blue thread that day. She told me how proud she was of the new song I was playing on my guitar. I can’t remember the tune, I had just made it up. Everyone was grinning by the time I finished singing. Several women even paused in their sewing to applaud.

Suddenly the building shook and Mum’s cup of coffee fell on me. I cried out as the liquid burned my face. The cup went flying against the sewing machine stand where it smashed into a million pieces. Then the building exploded, the Earth shook, and the ground opened up. I remember thinking that I was like Alice. I found myself falling down the rabbit hole, and I ended up in a totally dark place filled with obstacles—stones, sharp needles, metal gears, buttons flying like bullets, wires, dripping oil, chunks of the walls and ceilings. When I tell this story people assume I must have been terrified, and I suppose I was, but the whole thing was so strange and happened so fast I felt like I’d woken up in my book.
“Mum … where are you …? Mum …?”

No one responded. I didn’t panic. I assumed this was some kind of game where I was supposed to find her. I felt around in the dark, pushing things out of my way, at least those objects that would yield to the strength of a six-year-old. I moved from one dark space to another, expecting to see a hookah-smoking caterpillar at any moment.

I didn’t realize I was being watched by some man named Richard who’d come to Haiti to help start a school, but quickly shifted to helping with the earthquake rescue operation.2 He could see me as a blurry image using a special radar that was looking for survivors. Later, he said I “looked like a fetal sonogram.” People dismissed the moving image as a trapped dog under the rubble. But as the story goes, Richard disagreed. “No, it’s not moving like an animal. That’s a small person—probably all alone. We’re going to find that child … and if she has no one and nowhere to go … we’ll adopt her.” People kind of doubt the adoption prediction part of the story now, but I’m sure it’s true.

I fell asleep in my Wonderland using ripped clothes as a mattress. There was a large chunk of cement next to me which was a good thing since that’s what probably prevented me from being crushed. I was woken by the frantic sounds of local volunteers moving boulders and bricks with their bare hands. When they finally pulled me from the wreckage, people just stared at me in amazement like I must be the Haitian Alice—except I could see this wasn’t Wonderland. In the photo I have of my rescue, I’m covered in black soot, wearing shredded clothes, still holding onto my guitar.

“Where’s Mum?” I asked.

“Well, let’s find out,” Richard said. “What’s your name?”

“Claire Pierre-Louis.”

“That’s a lovely name,” he told me. I remember him wearing a white T-shirt, which seemed to shine brightly in the midday sun and was only smeared with a few streaks of dirt compared to everything else, which was covered with grime. I recognized the entrance to the factory, which looked like a big barn door, but the rest of the factory was gone.

I find it painful now to think about the following hours—the waiting, the searching, the injured and dazed survivors, seeing all the people who didn’t make it.

Finally, a somber Richard answered my question. “Your mum is sitting on your shoulder.” I was perplexed at first, but I gradually understood what he meant. I looked down for what seemed like a lifetime, looked at my Mum sitting on my shoulder, and then gave Richard a hug. My mum sits there still.

A few days later, I was still in shock, but I understood Richard’s proposal to me. “How about I be your Dad now?”

“Wow, I always wanted a Dad,” I replied.

“And Sharon, my wife, could be another Mom. We’ll take care of you while you take care of your Mum sitting on your shoulder.”

I felt good about this—I figured the more Mums the merrier. I was concerned that Mum on my shoulder wouldn’t like it, but she said that she did.

However, some of the local men I knew were not so enthusiastic. “Mèsi pou ede ou, men timoun nan rete isit la …” Thanks for your help, but the child stays here. We don’t want anybody stealing our children.

I looked around and saw one of the sewing machine stands lying on its side. It still had three of its legs so I set it straight and climbed up on it avoiding the big gash in the middle.

“But it’s what I want!” I blurted out without even thinking. I felt like I was one of those grown-ups I had seen on the factory TV giving a speech, like that guy Mum told me was the most important man in America. “I love everyone. My heart will always be here. And I will be back.”

Everyone was shocked at how mature I sounded, including me.

That’s how I became Claire Pierre-Louis Calico at the age of six.

We lived in Pasadena, a suburb of Los Angeles, in a wood and glass house that smelled like onions, or at least that’s what I can remember. Mom always cooked them in everything. To me, that became the smell of home. And home was also the sight of geraniums inside and outside the house. I loved those flowers. I love them still.

Dad explained to everyone that the house was built by “a guy named Frank Lloyd Wright.”3 He’s my favorite architect now. There was a winding stream that you could see from the huge window in the living room. Well, it was a fake stream, but I didn’t realize that at the time. It was all rather different from the Cap-Haïtien tenement I was used to. Dad always says a water view is his one requirement for a home.

The one regret he had about the house is that with all the glass walls there wasn’t enough wall space for Mom’s photos of the family and his art collection, which includes Grandma Hannah’s lovely flower paintings.

I had my own room which I decorated with posters of Haiti. There was a picture of a little girl who looked like me writing in her school book using a wooden bench as a desk, a picture of five women carrying baskets full of fruit on their heads, a man wading in the water with flowers of every color by the river bank. Everyone was smiling.

I felt lonely in this big room—I was used to sharing a bed with Mum in a room with three other families. Mum on my shoulder still shared my bed, but she didn’t take up as much space as she used to. I enjoyed talking to her each night telling her about my day, but I missed the way her fingers would stroke my forehead and how her body would make the bed sag toward the middle. Instead of feeling lonely, I thought I should be praying to God, thanking him for rescuing me, but Mum said she would take care of that.

Danielle came along the biological way two years later when I was eight. I remember Mom, Dad, and me rushing to the hospital at one in the morning. Mom just put on the fancy black coat she wore to parties over her flannel nightgown. Dad seemed to be ready for this moment and was all dressed and holding the labor bag. I threw my gym outfit on over my pajamas, which looked ridiculous.

When we got to the hospital, I was left in a huge white waiting room with a nurse’s assistant. I thought I would go crazy waiting for what I figured would be a long night. I counted the number of large white tiles—there were eight rows of six. I counted them again and again. I timed myself to see how much time I could use up this way, but it was only two minutes for each scan of the forty-eight tiles.

But Danielle, who never hesitated to move ahead when she decided to do something, popped out before I had counted the tiles a hundred times. I was hurried into a room and immediately fell in love.

She was swaddled in a floral blanket and had a full head of dark hair. Mom told me that a newborn’s expressions are not intentional, but I could have sworn that her beautiful “o” shaped mouth was telling me how amazing she thought the world was. There was not a whimper or a cry. I remember imagining her as a wise old woman, patiently looking out at the world.

Danielle’s precociousness was clear from the get-go.

I remember when she was three months old, she played a looking game with me, her own invention. I’d look at her and she’d quickly look away. Then when I looked away, she would look at me, but when I tried to catch her she’d turn away again. She invariably won, catching me glancing at her. Each time that happened, she broke out in a big smile as if to say, Gotcha.

By six months, she had her favorite dolls to whom she was fiercely loyal. She would line them up as if they were her students. Carousels and busy boxes held no interest for her, or, I should say, they interested her for a few minutes and then were cast aside forever.

She loved to play with books of any shape and description. She often sat in the middle of her room on the floor turning the pages, making exaggerated reactions like a mime. Apparently she was mimicking the responses she’d seen Mom, Dad, and me make while reading.

Illustration of Danielle showing book to Claire

By fifteen months, her book collection had expanded with those stolen from around the house, including some grown-up volumes that were larger than she was. I would try to look over her shoulder to see if there was any correlation between her reactions and what was actually on the page she was looking at, but she would close the book when I came around as if I were trying to sneak a peek at her personal diary.

She almost never cried, but expressed her displeasure by making a mad face. She kept looking through books voraciously and doing her pretend reading, imitating adult reactions, and I kept trying to see exactly what she was reading. This, too, became a game. Once she suddenly turned the book around as if to say, Okay, nosey, here! The book was upside down. I wonder to this day if she did that to throw me off.

“Maybe, she’s … different,” I heard Mom say to Dad with a furrowed brow one night after dinner. “She doesn’t even talk yet.” They didn’t know I was behind the door that led from the kitchen to the mess room, which is where I always hid when I wanted to listen to them.

“Oh, she’s different all right,” Dad replied. “But I wouldn’t fret about her talking.”

“And walking?” Mom added.

“She’ll talk when she has something to say,” Dad replied.

“And walk when she has someplace to go?” Mom added.

“Exactly.”

Danielle liked to fall asleep by curling herself into a tight ball on my lap. I enjoyed this, but it presented a bit of a dilemma if I wanted to do something else. Many nights, I just fell asleep myself with her lying there.

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